No Gender December: Do sex-stereotyped toys really hurt development?

There has been a lot of coverage in the news lately about the 'no gender december' campaign. This campaign, like several others, encourages parents not to buy gender-specific toys for their children this christmas on the basis of the fact that gender-neutral toys are better for children's development than specifically gendered toys and that heaviliy gendered toys are linked to gender inequality and related problems such as domestic violence.
I am not against this campaign at all. In fact, I once had a five minute rant about a toy catalogue which was divided evenly into boys and girls sections. I did wonder about their claims however, when doing research for my post on the harm of the princesses I did not find a lot of evidence linking heavily gendered toys with poor cognitive development.
A look at the website for their campaign does not find a lot of evidence to back up their claims. In their 'further reading and experts' section they mostly rely on popular media reports with no research and their two cited researchers have in fact done no research on the impact of children's toys on children's development.
They did link to some interviews about research which found that the toys most likely to develop children's physical, cognitive, artistic and other other skills were generally considered either neutral or moderately masculine and strongly gendered-typed toys were less beneficial to overall development than neutral or moderately gendered toys. Interestingly, the same research indicated that basic, open ended toys (blocks, vehicles, construction) were the best for encouraging development as they prompted problem solving, social interaction and creative expression 1. This aspect, that it is better to buy simple open ended toys than complex apparently appealing ones has not been promoted and it may be that neutral or moderately masculine toys are simply more basic and open ended than heavily gendered toys however this idea was not explored.
A review of research on this matter, does not show a great deal on it. There are some studies that indicate a difference in how toys are played with based on their apparent gender: masculine toys tendered to promote motor activity while feminine toys encouraged nurturing, social activity and role play. Parents interactions with their children also varied according to the type of toy presented with more animation in masculine toys, more teaching, praise and questions for feminine toys and more informative verbal behavior for neutral toys. Since these studies show that children's behavior varies according to the type of toy presented and not their own gender the conclusion would appear to be to provide children with both feminine and masculine toys for the best benefit 2. This is particularly the case since boys tend to be given a larger variety of toys with which to play so benefits could be expanded for girls by providing them with access to the smae toys 3.
Since gender stereotypes have been shown to be well in place the age of 5 and quite rigid by the age of 7 4, it would also make since that such campaigns should be largely targeted at toddlers and preschoolers rather than the older children that the 'war on barbie' tag-line would appear to indicate. By the time that children are aware of gender stereotypes they have been shown to reject toys based on their labelling or apparent gender which they did not do prior to being aware of the stereotype 5..
So it would seem that the 'no gender december' and other campaign and parents who insist their girls do not play with dolls or boys do not play with cars are missing the mark somewhat. Instead there should be a focus on making a variety of toys available to everyone.


Popular Posts